Return to Index Page


Jesus on Television

By Richard Gunther


The latest attempt to understand the person of Jesus has been launched on NZ television. Titled ‘The Son of God’ the three-part BBC production, first aired in Britain in 2001,  sought to find out what the world was like when Jesus lived, what Jesus looked like, and why he set out on his mission. Using forensic clues and evidence drawn from the gospels and other records, the  series attempted to reconstruct the social, political and religious climate some 2000 years ago, and then closed with an examination of the crucifixion and resurrection.


   The BBC production was not unique - there have been many attempts over the years to explain Jesus, and none of them have been fully adequate, so it is no surprise, now that the series has been screened, that there are still many questions to answer.


   For example, the BBC made very little of the claims made by Jesus to his deity. Nor did it have much to say about his miracles, or to his call to people to trust in Him alone for salvation. Almost nothing was said of his ability to foretell coming events, or his claim to absolute power over the universe (what C.S.Lewis called “rampant megalomania”). Something was made of his sense of otherness in the midst of his friends but this seems to have been attributed to his desire to be identified with the prophets of old, or perhaps his political aspirations. 


   The New Zealand TV Guide comment on the series made this point : “For 2000 years Jesus has been the source of faith to billions, the cause of many wars and the subject of countless works of art and fiction.”


   The interesting thing about this comment is what it does not tell us. Jesus has indeed been the source of inspiration for countless  expressions of human creativity (for example music, philosophy, psychology, drama, literature, science, dance, exploration and archaeology to name a few) but it is misleading to place the blame for war at his feet. Jesus never encouraged or advocated war.


   War is a product of various things - desire for more territory, racial bigotry, greed, lust for power and so on, and of course religion. But did Jesus come to establish a new and rival religion, using force and physical aggression? The only way I could be convinced that Jesus was the direct cause of religious wars is by seeing in the Bible some word from him, some instruction, some hint even, that he wanted his followers to attack and kill anyone who did not follow him. But this is what I do not find.


   Using the principle of ‘lead by example’ we can see that Jesus was no advocate of war. His whole ministry was one of healing, helping, restoring, raising, caring, loving and forgiving. He told his followers to ‘turn the other cheek’ to their enemies, to ‘go a second mile’ when oppressed, to feed and care for those who mistreated them, and when Jesus himself was nailed unjustly and cruelly to a cross, his one prayer for his tormentors was for their forgiveness. Hardly a picture of a warmonger!


   So where did the so-called ‘holy’ or religious wars come from? History books show that people who disregarded the example of Jesus made up their own version of Christianity, armed it with documents, oaths, swords and cannons, and went to war with the cross on their shields and the Bible in their pockets. They hacked and destroyed anyone who disagreed with their brand of Christianity, and tried to establish an armed version of the church on earth – in much the same way as the Romans tried to centre their power around the Caesar.


   Totally wrong of course, but so many people want to blame Jesus!


   Another problem which the BBC series will had was working out why Jesus began his mission and then died at the end of it, apparently defeated. As the commentator pointed out when the crucifixion came into view, Jesus had been a total and remarkable failure. Everything he had worked for had fallen into ruins, and he hung on the cross like a symbol of futility. From the secular point of view it seemed like something only an extremely idealistic man might do, or a fanatic. This was how the Romans viewed him. Other nationalities were confused too. The Greeks had no idea who Jesus was. The Jewish leaders hated him because he trod on their traditions and claimed things which they could not accept. People today are generally mystified too, because Jesus has always been an enigma to them. Why should something that happened 2000 years ago have any relevance to us today? History is just a record of past events – why is Jesus continually re-presented, as if he is still alive?


   But there are many answers, and they all make a lot of sense, if people are willing to set aside their arguments and take a little time to listen.


   The mission of Jesus, according to the Bible, did not start a mere 2000 years ago. If we believe the Bible, we have to begin with eternity.


   At some point in eternity (words make nonsense of the idea), there was a moment when the world was created. For earth-bound organisms at least, time began. Jesus created the first humans, then he waited about 4000 years and entered the world himself, as a human baby. His mission was but a tiny part of the whole plan. He displayed his power and established his credentials through prophecy and miracles and by the perfection of his own life, then he died. His apparent failure suddenly became a majestic victory, because he came back to life. As C.S.Lewis put it “Death worked backwards”.  Having taken control over death, Jesus returned to ‘heaven’ (our simple word for it), henceforth waiting for the moment of his return. After that he intends to establish an ever-growing empire which apparently has no limit.


   The BBC could never do justice to the subject of Jesus, but it is probably better for them to make an attempt than to give up in frustration. No mere documentary could ever do justice to this man. As the TV Guide said “Was he a rebel, a prophet or just a nice man?” I think the answer is simple: he was not a rebel, he was a conservative. His whole life was lived in strict obedience to the Old Testament Law. He was perhaps the most conservative man who ever lived. He was also a prophet, but much more than that. He spoke as a prophet, and he fulfilled hundreds of prophecies in his own life. But he also claimed to be the voice behind all the Biblical prophets.  A nice man?  If that was all he was we might as well make a documentary about somebody’s kindly old grandfather. He was so ‘nice’ that people fell at his feet and worshipped him. One woman washed his feet with her tears. A nice man? Hardly.


   While many Christians have applauded the BBC for its attempt to present the greatest personality of all recorded history, many have also squirmed uncomfortably at the false facts and misleading comments made during the series.


   For example, the idea that the “star” of Bethlehem may have been a conjunction of planets, with Jupiter shining brightly in the sky to lead the “wise men” to the baby. The Bible however says the “star”  stood over” the house where Jesus was, which shows that the light must have been near enough to the roof of the building to pinpoint it out from all the other buildings. No planet, or literal star could ever direct a traveller to a single building in a village. The star must have been a miracle, not explainable in material terms.


   Another comment during the program was not so much stated but more implied, namely that the crucifixion was the cause of Jesus’ death. The Bible says Jesus “gave” his life. It is generally assumed, even amongst Christians, that Jesus was killed, but there was no way anyone or anything could have killed him. Even on the cross he said he could call for armies of angels for defence, but he was determined to give his life. His timetable was exact. He had a specific moment planned in which he would breath out, and then yield himself to death.  Man did not, and could not, kill the Christ, according to the Bible.


   A possible alternative scenario (hypothetically speaking) could have gone this way. Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, announces his mission, and is received wholeheartedly by the Jewish people – including all the leaders and priests. He works with their full support for the specified time and then, in front of the High Priest and other witnesses, lies on a stone altar and gives his life. Before thousands of witnesses the sacrifice is made, and his body is pronounced dead. Some time later he revives and reinstates the Jewish people, forming them into the nucleus of his world kingdom, from which would flow vast and abundant blessings to all the nations.


   But history records a sad and horrible rejection of the Messiah, and a needlessly cruel and painful crucifixion. Nevertheless Jesus went through the ordeal and died according to his schedule. When he rose again his first mission was a final appeal to the Jewish people, who continued to reject him nationally, so the gospel went out to all the world. In some ways the Gentiles can be thankful that the Jews rejected their Messiah.


   The BBC presented many archaeological points of interest. It revealed the lavish wealth in which the Temple priests lived, and their hypocrisy. For example, using ancient records and some amazing computer graphics, the program rebuilt the stone stairway which the priests had made exclusively for themselves, which took them directly into the Temple, so they would not need to walk the same ground as ‘unclean’ commoners. The program pointed out that they would not allow sick or deformed people into the Temple. Jesus quite rightly soundly condemned them for this unjustified arrogance.  Jesus however went to the sick, healing and comforting them with great compassion, and telling them that they were no less valuable in God’s sight than any other man. The Bible says he also embraced the lepers.


   The program made very little of Jesus’ healing miracles. Instead of showing how incredible the miracles were, the commentator mentioned some other people with ‘healing’ powers. What the program did not point out was the fact that Jesus cured every person who came to him, of every sickness, every impairment and every genetic deformity. He restored whole organs, gave legs and arms to cripples,  eyes to the blind, ears to the deaf, and he raised the dead. No healer before or since Jesus has ever come even remotely close to this record. 


    Another point was made that perhaps Jesus arranged for Judas to betray him. In other words Jesus actually orchestrated his own crucifixion. The only support for this was the translation of a single Greek work. Taken by itself this may have seemed convincing to some, but placed in the context of the whole story, and with the background evidence of the Old Testament prophecies, there is no way Judas can be seen as a willing accomplice. He was so overcome with guilt after the event that he went and hung himself – hardly the reaction of a willing accomplice.


   In the crucifixion scene, the idea was put forward that Jesus was given vinegar laced with a painkiller to drink. It was implied that perhaps he did not feel the pain so much after that. But the Bible says Jesus refused the vinegar.


   The program suggested that Jesus was nailed through his heels, yet the Bible says that not a single bone in his body was broken.


   Many of the commonly suggested ideas about the ‘death’ of Jesus were put forward too, but the commentator actually dealt with them quite well. The favourite theory is probably the ‘swoon theory’, which proposes that Jesus didn’t actually die, but lapsed into a faint, or an unconscious state and revived some time later, after he had been buried.


   This theory actually raises more questions than answers. For example, is it possible for a man to go through vicious whipping, crucifixion, days without medical aid or food, confinement in a tomb wrapped with bandages, and then suddenly have the energy to push aside the stone door and come striding out in good health? Would anyone really believe in a resurrection if a man had dragged himself from a tomb, gasping and trembling? Would the tomb guards have permitted it? Would Christians proclaim a lie and base the whole Church on a deception? The problems are many.


   Jesus is the great enigma of history. He seems to have been just a man, but behind that superficial appearance of humanity there lies something too great and too vast to understand. Behind his simple parables lie deep mysteries. Behind his words and actions lie layers of meaning which all the scholars over the last 2000 years have not yet fully fathomed.


   C.S.Lewis said “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse.”


   What the BBC program did was skate right round the essential, hard-core things about Jesus. In the end, in the end, as the series finished, there was the usual confirmation that a man called Jesus did in fact live, which is hardly a point worth disputing, but what the program missed was the fact that this man called Jesus was in fact the Son of God. The title of the series was really a question. Was Jesus really the ‘Son of God?’  Well, was he? And if he was the Son of God, what then?


   Of course, under broadcasting policy, it was not the place of the program to  “promote religion” and quite rightly too, but if all the facts stack up, and if Jesus is quite clearly far more than a mere man, isn’t it the responsibility of a director to present the facts, rather than ask a lot of interesting questions. Of all events in the past the resurrection is the most thoroughly attested. Of all historical figures, Jesus is the most thoroughly documented. Of all testimonies, the New Testament is the most thoroughly confirmed and authenticated. Why then do people still waver in their opinions about Jesus?

   There is no doubt in my mind that Jesus was the Son of God. Why should there be doubt in anyone else’s mind – or do we need another two thousand years of programs,  movies and stacks of books before we decide?

Back to Index Page